For a lot of American students, the idea of travelling abroad to study can seem unusual. After all, US universities are frequently ranked as some of the best in the world - what could you possibly gain by going abroad? The truth is, Russia has far more to offer than the stereotypical cold winters and shots of vodka, as American student Hunter Cawood found when he decided to study at St Petersburg University.

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We got in touch to find out more about Hunter’s journey from the US to Russia and why more American students should consider Russian universities.

Russia is perhaps not the first study destination people think of, especially for Americans. Why did you choose to attend university in Russia in particular?

I actually started studying Russian during my undergraduate. It was a requirement for political science majors to simultaneously study a foreign language.

Coincidentally, I was dating a beautiful Ukrainian girl when I started university who encouraged me to study Russian. That opened a lot of doors for me. Through studying Russian, I landed an internship in Uzbekistan where I got to spend six months in the middle of my undergraduate studies working and improving my Russian.

Once I graduated from university, I became aware that the Russian government offers full-ride scholarships to international students. I knew I wanted to continue my education and to continue improving my Russian, so I spent the summer of 2016 locked up in the library writing a competitive research paper to put my name in the hat for that full-ride scholarship.

On July 14 2016, I woke up at 7am and saw my name on the list of scholarship winners and it felt like a dream come true.

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What motivated your initial interest in studying political science and at what point did you begin to think about further education in business?

The year I entered university was the year of the 2012 US election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. As with any American election cycle, it was gargantuan and full of political drama that fascinated me as an 18-year-old with the newfound right to vote. I sort of fell in love with the political drama and the intellectual exercise that’s a huge part of politics.

I took that passion and fascination with politics and immediately started getting involved. I became a Board Member of College Republicans, I worked internships for Senators Johnny Isakson and Bob Corker, read all the political literature I could get my hands on - and I really enjoyed it.

Around the same time a friend invited me to work with him on a startup. It was hard work, but it was also a blast. Unfortunately, we made mistakes and the business failed after about six months. I was inspired to learn from those mistakes and I decided the way to do that was to start from square one and learn how to do business the right way in university, with professors and practitioners who have the experience and know-how.

What were your expectations before moving to Russia for your studies?

My expectation was that I would love it. And that expectation wasn’t met, it was exceeded. It was challenging at times, I overcame a lot of adversity, but it was incredibly rewarding.

What were the biggest surprises upon arriving in Russia? In what ways is life in Russia different than you expected?

It’s no surprise to anyone that American media loves to paint Russia in a negative light. For a lot of Americans, that disproportionately negative portrayal of Russia sets them up for big surprises when they get there and see it for themselves. I was fortunate that I didn’t pay much attention to those caricatures of Russia and let the country speak for itself.

Honestly, the biggest surprise and hardest adjustment to studying in Russia was the schedule. There was no standardized schedule that stayed constant throughout the semester. Class dates and times change week in and week out, which means you have to constantly check your email as if it was a matter of life or death.

What do you think are the benefits of studying abroad for business degrees in particular?

I think studying abroad for business invariably expands your network and in doing so exposes you to new ideas and ways of thinking that you can learn, incorporate, and go from.

On top of that, study abroad will make you grow up a bit faster. It will force you to be more independent, autonomous, and take more responsibility for yourself and the things you want out of life. That’s a real benefit because the faster you learn and mature - the faster you reach the goals you’re aiming for.

Can you think of any experiences you had during your master’s program which probably wouldn’t have happened if you had stayed at a US university?

Where do I start: I’ve had opportunities to speak at TedxTalk, consult for Dell EMC, star in commercials for Russian companies marketing to the US, play semi-professional football, and pitch a startup in front of hundreds of experts and investors.

What is the community of international students like in St Petersburg?

Our international student community was diverse and tight-knit. We had students from all over the world: Germany, Zambia, China, Chile, and the list goes on. 

That said, Russians were also a huge part of that community. We were constantly intertwined. The Russian students in my program went above and beyond to help us adapt and make us feel welcomed. 

When there were trials or tribulations that we faced as international students, that community was there to support one another and that community is with me still today. For example, in August I’ll be traveling to Poland to reunite with many of my international groupmates - as two of them will actually be getting married.

How would you describe the university and Russia to other international students who are considering applying to study there?

St Petersburg University Graduate School of Management is the Harvard Business School of Russia. It’s where you go to become the best in the business.

The professors are both experienced professionals and scholars with the highest pedigree of professionalism. They’ll invest you and give you opportunities to take theory into practice. It’ll be challenging, but it’ll be worth it.

And as for Russia, Russia is the land of opportunities. There are so many things you can do and be here. It just depends on your willingness to seek out opportunities and make the most out of them.

As for Russians, they’re some of the best people you’ll find on planet Earth. They are deep, sincere, friendly, and will treat you as an equal no matter who you are or where you come from.

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How has your time in Russia benefited your career to date?

My time in Russia has in many ways fast-tracked my career. With the opportunities and network I gained from studying at St Petersburg State University, I’ve been able to spring forward in the direction I want to go. 

I became a mid-manager at a multi-national company by age 25, I’ve also worked with several startups and been an integral part of developing their strategies and success. I’ve been able to launch my own organization Ru-PAC, write column articles for the Russian International Affairs Council - Russia’s #1 think-tank, and I just recently did two interviews on CGTN talking about Russian politics.

I’m incredibly thankful and blessed to be where I am and I owe a big thank you to St Petersburg University - who really invested in me throughout my master’s degree. My hope is to be a return on investment and as I move forward, I hope that my career will reflect that.